Friday 10 February 2017

The Top Line

The top line, the higher railway on our side of the valley, passed right below the garden of 1 Beech Terrace. Twice a day the longest coal trains in the world trundled slowly past.
We used to illicitly walk along the top line, over the viaduct at Pont-y-Waun, into Risca to go to the swimming pool. The railway was easily the most direct route and avoided troublesome gradients. The trains were infrequent and slow, but if we were lucky we could jump up on the guard’s van and hitch a lift home.
We wondered where the trains came from; where they went to. Perhaps they never stopped, like the Flying Dutchman. Other kids had great ships or silver planes to carry their dreams beyond the horizon. We had black coal trains that steamed on for ever.
Below the top line a foot-bridge led over the main line from Newport. Slag heaps bordered the River Ebbw, dark as the Styx. A good afternoon would begin on the bridge, to be blasted by the steam and smoke of the train heading up towards Newbridge and Crumlin. It would then continue with hours glissading down the slag heaps, as if they were Stygian alps.  There was always the chance of a misjudged slide ending up in the river. I don’t think that ever happened, but I do remember desperately grabbing at saplings and branches to avoid a soaking.

I’m sure that somewhere there on the black river lived Charon Reese the boatman, waiting to ferry the souls of Welsh miners to the green hills of heaven, or to carry sinners down to Newport.

Wednesday 1 February 2017


The great hill of Twmbarlwm dominates the valleys of the Ebbw and the Usk and the flood plain of the River Severn. On the summit is an iron age fort, and a very distinctive ‘Twmp’ some 150 feet high. Its slopes are steep, so it was incorporated into the hilltop’s defences. This great mound is visible for many miles; it watches over the valleys below.
Like all the peaks in the area it was inevitably referred to as ‘the mountain’, not in any sense of aggrandisement, it was just the local use of the word. Yet it was and is a mountain, not by virtue of its size, but because it has the personality, the history, the stories of a mountain.
In years gone by people from the valley would go ‘up the Tump’ on Good Friday - Sunday schools, chapels, youth clubs, families and even whole streets would organize themselves and walk to the top of Twmbarlwm - some church groups would carry a cross to the top and sing hymns, a tradition probably going back to medieval times.
As a boy my father climbed Twmbarlwm. Years later so did I.
Many years ago there was a great battle between wasps and bees on the top of Twmbarlwm. To this day people sometimes see unusual clouds there, and then on the summit they find the bodies of thousands of wasps and bees.
The bees are good and the wasps are evil, and up on Twmbarlwm they fight each other and so they control what happens to the poor people down in the valley.
Maybe it’s true. No one knows who made the Twmp, but some say it’s the burial mound of a chieftain called Bran, Raven in English.
The bees are Bran’s messengers. Should anyone disturb the mound they suffer the curse of Bran. People digging into the mound have been attacked by swarms of bees. Sometimes the green ghost of Bran is seen in Nant Carn, and woe betide anyone who sees the ghost, for that person will be dead within a year.
The view from the Twmp is magnificent. There, inevitably buffeted by the Western wind, you can see all South Wales spread out below you, and beyond the Severn is the misty promise, or threat, of England.
Years later I learned of the great bard William Thomas of nearby Ynys Ddu. He took Islwyn as his bardic name. I’m sure he was thinking of his Arthurian namesake when he wrote:
It is better to die on the slope of Twmbarlwm, than live under the yoke of the Saxon!

But what of Bran of Twmbarlwm? Did he somehow know Mynyddislwn, Nant y Crochan, Cylfynydd Farm, Beech Terrace? Did he die rather than yield, a freeman on the green hills?